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notes:

From A Visit to Palestine / Israel

Oz Shelach

8 Jul. 2001

Dear Friends,

Ten days ago I came back from a two week visit home. It was good to go, and it was unpleasant to be there. Not that unpleasant is so terrible, indeed it can be quite comfortable. I had many doubts about even taking space with my impressions from inside the state of Israel, and finally decided they may be of some interest, supplementing the urgent reports from the West Bank and Gaza, where the siege continues, where the army and settlers roam.

Landing

Delta flight #96 was half empty, there rows of seats to sprawl on. Few people travel this route now, very few tourists. Security workers await passengers right outside the airplane and ask some of us for our passports, our destination, our background… to my surprise, the passport control lines in the terminal are short for Israeli nationals, and long for Foreign nationals. The people on the Foreign nationals line speak Russian, Rumanian, they are coming to work. Since 1993, when workers from the West Bank and Gaza were locked out, Israel resorted to importing cheap labor from other third world countries. The number of foreign laborers is currently estimated at two or three hundred thousand.

Outside the airport I ask the service van driver “Where are you driving through?” One time, coming from this airport, I was troubled to find myself, with six other passengers, going to Jerusalem through the West Bank, finally entering the city through the A-Ram road block. This time I was cautious. The driver was angered by my question and almost yelled at me. “You think only you are important? What about me? My life is not important? I have six children at home to come back to!” There was no question of routes this time.

Breakfast In Downtown Jerusalem

The morning after arriving I call my good friend Sami, and join him and his wife Kifah for late breakfast in a coffee shop in the pedestrian mall Nahalat Shiva’h. Kifah is eight months pregnant and looks wonderful, as if pregnancy has added to her usual aura. It’s their first outing, they tell me, since October. They have been apprehensive of being heard speaking Arabic in West Jerusalem. They were afraid of a bombing, of fascist mobs scanning the streets for Arabs after a bombing, of just meeting hostile faces.

“But now there is a cease fire,” Sami says, “and Kifah said ‘let’s go out.’” It is very good to go out with them.

An old beggar approaches us, a Palestinian, who can tell where from. Someone in the next table gives him some change. Then a loud whistle rolls down the street. Looking up I see a bearded man striding down with a British Police whistle in his mouth. “Out!” the man shouts. “Out of here! I told you before, how many times do I have to tell you? Out, if I will have to chase you all. You are shits and I am not ashamed to say so.” I assume he is referring to Arabs, and I still do. Although the beggar seemed the most shaken by this appearance and has made a quick escape, the large group sitting next to us seems to take the attack most to heart. One yells back at him that he’s a piece of shit himself. Another hushes her, saying the man is crazy. And another says he felt like beating him up.

Kifah and Sami are well. This weekend they are to pick the marble slabs for the house they are building in their village in the Galilee. Staying at home in Jerusalem has not been easy for them either. In October the Arab neighborhood of Bayt Safafa, where they live, was attacked by a Jewish mob. Windows in their building, which borders on the Jewish neighborhood of Pat were smashed. Some weeks ago, on their way back from the Galilee, they received a call from their landlord warning them to drive home through a back road and park their car deep inside the Arab area. It was the day after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. A Jewish woman who gets her hair done by the hair dresser in the ground floor of their building had called to warn of another planned attack. Nothing actually happened, but they took very long to fall asleep that night.

On A Depopulated Village

Saturday morning I join my in-law cousin on his farming day outside Jerusalem. Shimon used to be a professional gardener, has even written a best selling home gardening book. Two years ago he and his friend have leased a piece of land on a mountain slope from the Jewish National Fund where they grow vegetables on weekends. The approach to Sataf, where I used to go on picnics with my family is not by foot from the bottom of the valley anymore, but by road, through the top of the mountain. The paved road leads straight to the spring and the reservoir, but a few hundred meters before these we stop by a metal gate. Shimon presses the remote control and the gate opens up, his joy is visible in his face. “I love this,” he tells me. “I love seeing the Plebeians astonished, staring at me with envy.”

We walk through what is now a very organized site for local tourists. Signs put up by the JNF direct visitors to a “Restoration of ancient agricultural techniques,” and warn against drinking the water or dipping in them. But some youths have already walked down the little reservoir stairway and are dipping their feet in the water. A metal grill covers the entrance to the tunnel which leads into the mountain and the rock wall the water springs from. We walk down some terraces and make a left on one, where Shimon sticks a key into a shrub covered fence and pulls open a hidden gate. “This is the entrance to Paradise,” he tells me. I say that in my Paradise there are no fences.

The terraces have been divided into plots and rented to gardening enthusiasts. Here city dwellers can enjoy the quiet and beauty of nature for a mere 150 Shekels (about $35) a year. It is the only program of its kind in Israel. I ask how come, and am told that the spring yields enough water for something, but not to justify a drill by the Water Company. This way the water doesn’t go to waste, Shimon explains. It is truly beautiful in Sataf. Across the steep falls and rise of the valley stands an old monastery. Few cars pass on the road at the bottom. Song birds inhabit the bush and trees.

“What was here before you came?” I ask my in-law cousin and his gardening partner. “Nothing,” they say. “Someone else had rented this plot but let it go to seed. There was nothing here. It was a huge weeding job.” I ask who maintains the stone terraces and they say the JNF. Indeed, last winter a section of the terrace over their plot had collapsed, and needed to be rebuilt. The renovated terrace was built with concrete.

They are picking squash today, and green bell peppers. Here, they show me, we had sweet potatoes. And here potatoes, they made great fries. And here cabbage. The tree at the beginning of the plot yields so much plum many of them are left on the ground to rot. “How old is it?” I ask, and Shimon says it is young, maybe five years. “And this tree,” I insist, pointing at a tree that’s obviously older – five separate trunks have already sprang off the older dying one in their middle – the one Shimon and his partner use to hang plastic bags on, for later pickings. “That’s a wild almond,” he says without hesitation. A wild almond.

I tell him that I have learned just recently, that this Palestinian village, Sataf, was depopulated on July 13, my birthday. Shimon says that he had been curious about the escape of the villagers for a long time. But then he met this guy who, he corrects himself, whose father came from this village. The guy works in Sataf now, for the man who runs the site for the JNF. “He told me that one day the Mukhtar convened the people and told them to leave, and the next day they left. And that’s it. There was no deportation.”

On the way out we pass by a growing crowd of vacationers and picnic makers. Someone calls out to my in-law, a man on a picnic with his family, sitting under a tree. “Shimon! Got radishes?” he asks. My in-law only has lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers. “We just need radishes to make this perfect,” says the man, regretfully. Shimon tells me that this is his acquaintance, the displaced people’s son.

We Are All Ariel Sharon

In a narrow alley by the produce market, where I used to live, and where I am staying this time, some houses have been renovated. My sweetest neighbor, an old widower, saw a car bomb explode outside her window. Two of her grandchildren were with her. Their family lives in the settlement of Gilo, considered by most Jews a neighborhood in the south of Jerusalem. They were sent to stay with her because Palestinians were shooting at Gilo from the village of Bayt Jalla, on whose land it stands. She was in the kitchen, but her grandchildren were in the room facing the street when the car exploded. Luckily they were only shocked and scratched. Pieces from the car have landed in my hosts little yard. I see signs of violence in other places too. A little memorial on Yaffa Street, bullet marks on stones not far from where I had breakfast, dentures in the wall of a building on Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, where a distant cousin of mine was killed by a bomb, and her friend seriously wounded.

When I tell a friend from Bayt Jalla of this he smiles sadly. “You know,” he says, “that not a single house in Bayt Jalla has not been hit by Israeli bombs and bullets. The building next to my office just isn’t there anymore.” I do know. I did not mean to draw a symmetry.

Streets in Downtown Jerusalem are nearly empty at night. It’s well into the tourist season but tourists aren’t’ coming, which is a relief to pedestrians, but a blow to the economy. Many hotels have closed down until further notice, laying off thousands of workers. I peel an unfamiliar car-bumper sticker off a street sign. It reads: “No Arabs, No Bombs!”. A few days later I see the same sticker on a car in Tel-Aviv. And there are other signs of rising racism. Like settlers demonstrating on Ben-Yehuda, alternating slogans: “Arabs Out!” “Don’t Desert Your [settler] Brothers!” And plain simple “WAR!”. I did not even stop to argue with them. I felt helpless.

No one hangs out on Kikar HaHatulto, literally “Pussy Plaza,” in Nahalat Shiva’h, which brims with youths on a regular summer night. My friend Yuval explains that Jews are also cautious about going out. He then describes to me the disappearance of the opposition, and the swing to the right wing. In October, he says, when Palestinians inside Israel protested in solidarity with their revolting brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, Yosi Sarid just joined the nationalist choir, yelling on radio that roads must be opened at any price, remaining silent when police executed protesters. The rest of the so-called Zionist Left took a similar stand.

Yuval and I are both old enough to have some memories from the early eighties, when the Israeli Army, led by then Minister of Security Ariel Sharon (with or without the Prime Minister’s knowledge) invaded Lebanon. Old enough to remember our friends’ parents saying that if Sharon ever becomes PM they would have to leave the country. But Sharon’s election now seems natural, he’s become “our” Prime Minister.

About a week into my visit the BBC airs a documentary on the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982, carried out by Lebanese Fascists just outside Beirut, inside an Israeli controlled area, with the Israeli Army lighting up the nights for the murderers’ convenience and blocking the refugees from escaping the site. The documentary claims that Sharon, who was found responsible to the massacre by an Israeli committee of Enquiry, should be put on trial for committing war crimes. The Israeli press stands united behind Sharon. Journalists who exposed his actions in Lebanon now refuse to cooperate with the BBC. Everyone aggress that there is “nothing naïve” about the timing of this broadcast, as if the election of a war criminal to head the state is.

I feel that having left three years ago, to study abroad, I may have gotten out just in time.

Silencing Dissent

In Tel Aviv I meet Yael Lerer, a small publisher and an organizer, who tells me about the on-going campaign to outlaw Parliament member Azmi Bishara, or just eliminate him. Bishara, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, has been calling for a Democratization of the state for many years. A speech he delivered, on a visit to Syria sparked an unprecedented hate campaign against him. One Jewish member of Parliament said that “In any normal state he’d have been put before a shooting squad.” The minister of the Interior now wants to remove his citizenship and make him a temporary resident of the state (a fate more than one indigenous person has suffered), and his request is being considered by the Attorney General.

The attorney general, and other officials, are quick to join the general violent trend. Unlike the first Intifada, when some cases of murder by soldiers were investigated, this time none are. Neither are cases of settler violence against Palestinians and their property. The attorney general and other officials describe their position in similar terms to those used by the army about the government: “Our hands are tied.” One official even ventured to say that “the law is not making it easy for the Justice System to carry out its job.”

Yael shows me an email correspondence with Amos Schoken, publisher of Israel’s liberal daily Haaretz, a chain of local weeklies, and one of the owners of a media group that recently won a concession for a TV channel. Schoken refused the call to support Azmi Bishara. He also expressed wonder about supporting the Intifada, how can that be different from supporting the bombing of Israeli youths outside a night club. Haaretz covers the Intifada and Israel’s war on the Palestinian people more honestly than any other mainstream media in Israel. It is considered a lefty paper. Still, most of the information it publishes about the army’s actions comes directly, sometimes word for word, from the Army Spokesman. And heading the TV channel team is Dan Margalit, a prominent columnist in Haaretz, a consistent supporter of torture-interrogation, an old and revived fan of Ariel Sharon.

Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon has eliminated a buffer zone. Now we see the Occupied Territories going through fast Lebanonization, deteriorating towards a possible rerun of 1982 Beirut, and the Camps War that followed. Israel itself, without the buffer of the West Bank and Gaza, is growing similar to the West Bank and Gaza before the Intifada. Political freedoms are being narrowed, and those of Palestinian citizens are first to go.

Away Again

Going over these notes I looked for a unifying image, something to wrap it all up with, and found none. The central image here is absent. It is kept away from Jews in Israel, and they turn a blind eye to what evidence they do get of the atrocities in the Occupied Territories. Civilians bombed, cities and villages sentenced to complete physical isolation, prevented from getting their water supply and medical help, left at the mercy of soldiers and armed settlers. I saw none of it. I knew that if I was to stay any longer I could not hold off going to actions in the West Bank, joining one of the food convoys to a villages under siege, and I was afraid. I went for two weeks, and came back, and saw nothing.

My overall impression is that current Israeli policy can persist for many months to come, perhaps years. The constant threat of violence still held in reserve, that of a bigger military operation annihilating the remains of the Palestinian Authority, as well as any Palestinian public structure, may be carried out at some point, but it may also not. The occupation, the continuing elimination of living necessities from Palestinians, the continuing land grab, all these serve the colonizing project. None of the people I talked with, Jews and Palestinians, lefties and right wingers, activists and people on the street, not one of them had any hope for improvement. Not one was even slightly optimistic.

 
 

Oz Shelach is an Israeli writer, and journalist. He runs this web site, and his book, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments, was published by City Lights Books, SF, in 2003.